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Guest Review: Quintavalle on Mazer

Poems

There are worse role models than T. S. Eliot but reading through Ben Mazer’s Poems his presence can get a bit overwhelming. In “Crushed Rains” for instance where the narrator finds himself

wondering what’s become of failed romances,
missed opportunities, lost chances,
now twenty years of dinner and of dances,
            the felt but never undertaken stances

the reader is left to wonder where Prufrock ends and Mazer begins.  The two “Rhapsody on a Winter Night” poems make their allegiances even clearer by borrowing not just their mood and diction but also their title from the older poet. 

Another openly acknowledged influence on Mazer is John Ashbery whom he invokes in the poem “Death and Minstrelsy” – “there is not a single other/contemporary poet who I do admire” –  and whose disjunctive, campy, cinematic style can be felt throughout the book.  Ashbery returns the favour via a back cover blurb – “To read him is to follow him along a dreamlike corridor where everything is beautiful and nothing is as it seems” – which, while an accurate description of Mazer’s style, could equally be applied to Ashbery himself. 

Well, mutual back-scratching is nothing new in the world of poetry reviews and again, you could do worse than choosing to emulate Ashbery whose dominance over poetry in the second half of the 20th Century is comparable to Eliot’s in the first half.  But you could surely do better too.  Especially if you have the talent of Mazer who, judging by this book, is a prodigiously gifted writer.  There is a musicality to his verse which is genuinely pleasurable, both sensually and intellectually (“Unguent breath requires a text of song./A plectrum scattered at the old piano.”) and part of me wishes he would shrug off his forebears and do his own thing.  But this would be to make him the kind of poet which he is not.  This is poetry from the groves of East Coast academe – learned, world-weary, witty – and best to take it on its own terms, even if I find those terms slightly limiting. 

And on its own terms this is top-notch stuff.  “The Double” and “The Long Wharf” are beautiful poems and as late-romantic lyric poetry goes this is probably as good as it gets.  The long surrealist romp of “Tonga”, part-Edward Lear, part-Ronald Firbank is worth having as well.  When Mazer ventures into more experimental territory the results are less convincing: the block capitals of  “EVEN AS WE SPEAK” read like the textual equivalent of a politician trying to dress cool – chinos, ironed shirt and loafers; and the two and three word lines of “Before” seem sloppy when compared to such masters of the short line as Zukofsky or Creeley.  Mazer is at his best when he gives free rein to his lyricism (the longer poems in this collection seem stronger than the shorter ones) and when this book works there is something truly delightful to it, like kicking off your shoes and putting on the Schubert.

And yet, as should be clear by now, I was left unsatisfied by this collection.  Too often it felt like Mazer was staying within his comfort zone, that his wide reading and technical virtuosity were being used, not to confront the world but to keep it at a distance.  Invoking his idealized Tonga, Mazer declares “I want to live there, far from continents … the dizzying atmosphere/is what I seek, quite far from any mainland”.  This is the Yeatsian dream of Inisfree transposed to the southern hemisphere and as in Yeats’ poem, Mazer conjures up his dream island in glorious, sensual, musical language. But Yeats also wrote “September, 1913”, and there is precious little of that kind of writing in Mazer’s book.  While it is wonderful and necessary to escape to a fantasy world, any poet worth his or her salt must surely live in the here and now as well. 

Too much poetry can, paradoxically, kill the poet.  It did this to Rilke, it almost did it to Wilde before tragedy intervened (a tragedy which he seems to have been consciously seeking out by not fleeing England) and produced De Profundis and Reading Gaol.  I am not wishing civil war or imprisonment on Mazer, just hoping that he can let a little more of the world in at his New England window.  It would be a shame if such a talented poet were never to turn his attention to slightly more serious subject matter.

Quintavalle is a poet and acting poetry editor of Nthposition currently based in Paris.
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